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Towing an RV Trailer

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Traveling by RV can help you and your family get out of Dodge for less than the cost of staying in a hotel and eating out for every meal. Figuring how out to get that recreational vehicle to your vacation spot, however, may be the least fun part of the adventure. We’ll walk you through the steps of evaluating if your vehicle is up to the task of towing — or being towed — and what type of equipment you’ll need.

Trailer RV towing

The bigger and heavier the RV trailer, the bigger and more powerful the vehicle towing it needs to be. If your dream RV is a 7-foot “teardrop” camper, you might get away with using a sedan to tow it. But if your RV is 40 feet long with a hardwood floor and marble countertops, you’re probably going to need to tow it with an SUV or a truck. Travel trailers include everything from a conventional trailer towed behind your bumper to a fifth-wheel trailer that uses a hitch inside a truck bed.

Questions to ask about the towing vehicle:

  • What is the towing capacity of the vehicle? Most vehicles have a towing capacity as part of their specification numbers. If you don’t already know it, you could look it up in your owner’s manual or search online. If you look online, you could see a towing calculator or a guide published by the manufacturer of your car. You could also use your vehicle’s specific year, make, model and trim in a general search or use its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) — a number unique to your vehicle — in a VIN “decoder.” Here are a few popular automakers:
  • Does it have a towing package? Towing packages can consist of a hitch, wiring harness and tools to make towing easier or safer, like a stabilizer bar or backup assistance. You can buy some vehicles that have a towing package included, or you may be able to buy and add on a towing package to a vehicle you already have. If you plan to tow a large RV, a towing package is not a bad idea and can increase safety. Your RV dealer also may offer tools such as extended side mirrors and trailer sway controls.
  • What type of hitch does it need? There are different classes of hitches, 1-5, that are rated to tow different maximum weights. Depending on the weight and type of the RV, you may need to buy and install a stronger class of hitch. As an example, fifth-wheel RV trailers need a fifth-wheel hitch, which can only be installed in the bed of a pickup. If your RV is especially heavy, you can check out our list of the best trucks for towing.

Questions to ask about the RV to be towed:

  • What is the RV’s gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR)? Don’t simply look up the plain weight of an RV. This is most likely the RV’s empty weight or “dry weight” — the RV without any of its tanks filled or any food, bedding, luggage, etc. Instead, you need to look for its loaded weight, which is also called the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR).
    • RV total weight. Total weight = RV dry weight + passengers’ weight + cargo + liquids. Total weight should not exceed your vehicle’s towing capacity, which we talked about earlier. We’ll talk more about marrying the two — vehicle towing capacity with the trailer’s GVWR — below.
  • How big is the RV? While a spacious RV can be a beautiful thing, remember, you’re going to have to handle towing it for potentially thousands of miles in different types of weather on different types of roads. Consider RV length if you need to make tight city turns or mountain curves. Think about height if you need to go under low bridges or gas station awnings or navigate ATM or restaurant drive-thrus.
    • Things on top of the RV roof. Remember that you may have things on top of your RV, like air conditioning and heating units, luggage containers or vents.

How to match a trailer RV to an RV-towing vehicle

Compare the towing capacity with the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR)

Make sure that the maximum towing capacity of the vehicle is greater than the RV’s GVWR. You do not want to max out your car’s towing capacity and potentially ruin the engine. You’re going to add several hundred, if not a few thousand, pounds more to the RV once it’s packed and ready to go. But how can that be?

One gallon of fresh water weighs more than eight pounds. And depending on the size of your RV, you could take 30 to 55 gallons of water with you. If you do the math, that may be more than 400 pounds, just for fresh water. You may also have to add water as you go — and unless you have the proper spots to empty the tanks, you’re also taking the used water back with you.

Compare the towing vehicle’s height with the RV’s height

If your car has an extremely low profile -— you’re taller — and the top of the RV you want to tow is 13.5 feet off the ground, you may encounter problems. Going 70 to 80 MPH down the road, all the pressure of the wind pushing on the trailer could slow you down considerably, tank your MPG and put greater force on the car and the trailer hitch. It could also cause swaying, which can be dangerous if uncontrolled.

Motorhome RV towing

If you want to tow something with your RV motorhome, you should consider some of the same type of questions as a car, truck or SUV hauling a trailer RV.

  • What is the towing capacity of the RV? Your RV may not have a problem towing a light sedan, but may have an issue towing something heavier like a boat. Look up your exact RV model’s towing capacity and compare it with the weight of what you want to tow. Don’t forget to include the weight of a trailer if you need to put the item on a trailer in order to tow it.
  • Do you need a towing package? Your motorhome itself is most likely longer than the average vehicle. If you tow something behind it, you’re adding even more length, so be sure you can see and monitor what you’re towing. Towing packages on your RV may offer extended side mirrors in addition to a hitch and ball, and electrical hookups.
  • How maneuverable will it be? Remember you’re going to tow your item potentially hundreds of miles in different types of weather, on different types of roads. Think about the length, height and width of what you want to tow.
  • What type of hitch do you need? As we mentioned earlier, there are different classes of hitches, one through five, that are rated to tow different weights. Consider the weight of what you need to tow (including the trailer, if you need one) before you buy and install a hitch.
  • What type of trailer do you need? You will probably need a trailer if you want to tow something that can’t or shouldn’t run along behind on its own wheels, such as a motorcycle, golf cart, boat or a 4×4 vehicle. And consider the level of protection you want for what you tow — does it need to be in an enclosed trailer to prevent damage or theft?

The bottom line

Our biggest piece of advice to avoid towing something larger than what you are comfortable driving. If you have never towed something and decide to get a 40-foot trailer RV, you’re going to have a learning curve. Whatever you’re towing, go slowly until you get a feel for it and be extra sure you are safe both driving and parking it. There are RV driving classes you might take such as those offered by RV School and the Family Motor Coach Association.

You could also consider RV roadside assistance, which is offered by businesses such as Good Sam or may be available through your regular insurance provider. Speaking of insurance, carry RV insurance. Most lenders and some states require RVs to be insured, so check with your RV dealer, lender or your state’s department of motor vehicles, which may also require the RV to have its own title.


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